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Death in Comic Books: Part 4

July 28, 2011

One of the most important elements of a comic book death is how the character is ultimately resurrected, whether the character was intended to stay dead or not. After all, good writing can always overcome pre-existing reservations, and there have been times when characters were brought back so well that the disbelief about the nature of death in comic books and the annoyance and how it affected other characters was suspended, and the readers were won over. The two best examples of this were Ed Brubaker reviving Bucky Barnes during his still-ongoing Captain America epic, which also saw Bucky take on the mantle of Captain America himself for a few years, and Geoff Johns reviving the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, in the highly critically-acclaimed Green Lantern: Rebirth, which laid the groundwork for his subsequent still-ongoing Green Lantern epic. That’s not to say that these are the only two good examples of resurrections done well. They’re just two particularly shining examples of major characters that are good case studies for what works and what doesn’t.

So what about those two worked so well? The circumstances of each death are wildly different. Bucky Barnes supposedly died when a plane that his arm was stuck to exploded, the circumstances of which provided the back story for Captain America’s revival in the modern day in the pages of the Avengers. Hal Jordan died after his character was suddenly changed via editorial mandate into the villain Parallax. After years of infamy, he sacrificed his life in a final act of redemption to reignite Earth’s sun. Back story versus character salvation from editorial mandate. True, neither story was written by their characters’ original creators, but so are most comic book stories at this point. However, both worked because of these different circumstances. Neither had anything to do with a classic, beloved storyline. Bucky’s death could be argued as such, but as it was a flashback and back story that was not actually depicted at the time it occurred, that’s highly debatable. As for Hal Jordan’s death, this was a way to restore Hal’s heroism after Emerald Twilight so controversially derailed it. One thing the two stories do have in common was that neither character was ever intended to come back. Bucky’s death was a crucial part of Captain America’s life, and Hal had been replaced by the younger Kyle Rayner to revitalize Green Lantern.

However, Ed Brubaker and Geoff Johns both came up with brilliant ideas of how to bring back the characters without damaging the integrity of the original storylines. In Brubaker’s case, we never actually saw Bucky’s death, so it’s not that odd an idea to consider that Steve Rogers might have remembered it wrong, particularly after being trapped in ice for numerous decades. That provided a highly plausible window for his return. As for Johns, Hal had “come back” in a fashion as the new host of the Spectre, so it’s not like he had completely faded out of the DC Universe. But more importantly, although Green Lantern fans had come to love Rayner, Hal’s face heel turn had not been well received by the fans. As such, a revival would be a way to bring back the Hal Jordan that everyone had loved. Additionally, Johns’ idea involved the return of the Green Lantern Corps, which would allow Rayner to remain important and would allow for the return of numerous other classic characters like John Stewart, Guy Gardner, Ganthet, Kilowog, and many more.

Ultimately, Bucky’s resurrection took place in the past. It was revealed that a Soviet general had found Bucky’s frozen form and had revived him before utilizing brainwashing techniques to turn him into one of the most lethal weapons of the Cold War era: the Winter Soldier. This allowed Brubaker to tie Bucky’s life into the Black Widow’s back story, as well as link him to numerous classic Marvel villains from the Soviet Union (though considering the sliding timescale, perhaps they aren’t Soviets anymore). He was kept in cryogenic stasis between missions, and after his “master” died, he was given to his master’s protege, Aleksander Lukin, who was on a collision course with the Red Skull and by extension Steve Rogers. Ultimately, Bucky’s memories returned when Steve used the Cosmic Cube on him (a good choice, as the Cube was a classic Cap item). So really, aside from Bucky’s actual survival, his new back story fleshed things out and added to the Marvel tapestry rather than retconned away. It also brought into the modern Marvel Universe a new character whose existence helped provide new storylines for many years.

Hal Jordan came back far more literally when Parallax was revealed to be a sentient being rather than simply his former villainous codename. He had been possessed by a primal entity of fear on the order of his old nemesis, Sinestro. The creature took advantage of Hal’s disturbed mind in the wake of the destruction of Coast City to take total control of him, and it was responsible for the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps. The Spectre had taken Hal as its host to purify him of Parallax’s control. With Rayner’s aid, Ganthet reunites Hal’s soul and body, and Hal and the other surviving Green Lanterns defeat Sinestro and Parallax. The Guardians of the Universe take the return of the greatest Green Lantern as a sign, deciding to finally rebuild the corps. Although this revival did involve a retcon, it was retconning a much-reviled change in a beloved character. It gave places to all four of the human Green Lanterns, including Hal’s replacement, and laid the foundations for Johns’ extensive re-imagining of the Green Lantern mythos, which connected various disparate elements into a significantly more cohesive, logical whole. The story paid tribute to classic arcs even as it changed them, as even its most important retcon allowed the events of Emerald Twilight, Final Night, and subsequent storylines to remain intact.

So ultimately, the main thing about comic book deaths has to do with retcons. It is true that the constant revival of dead comic book characters can strain believability in terms of the stakes of any given major crisis. It’s when revival stories really pay respect to the ones that caused the characters’ deaths and provide new material for modern stories that readers can overlook the “revolving door.” I would still say that Marvel and DC should be careful about killing off and bringing back characters all the time, as even good revival stories can be too numerous. Not that I’m worried about that, considering how many resurrections are totally unbelievable. That’s one thing that both these stories did. They were perfectly believable within their respective base mythologies. But these two storylines are blueprints for resurrections done right. It would be nice if more writers would take stock of how Brubaker and Johns did it. Then maybe every single comic book death wouldn’t feel so stupid and blatantly money-driven.

There you have it. I may not like comic book deaths, but they can be done well. Right now, though, they’re at such an all-time high that I think there should be a bit of a moratorium on resurrections for a while. “Dead is dead” would be nice for a few years. After all, even though live characters provide plenty of story material, so do meaningful deaths.

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